Like Clockwork

“Ugh really, you couldn’t go at least a little faster?”

“Ye know, ye could help, ye no-good, fish-eatin’, feline!”

“Well excuse me, Mr. Oversized, Ex-Criminal Rodent!”

“Yer no goody two-shoes yerself, ya war-instigating, public enemy!”

“If you two don’t stop yer bickerin’, I’ll be sure to serve up extra-small portions for you both at supper!”

“The fox is right, and you really wouldn’t want to make the captain of… El Toro! upset, now would you?”

“If you’re all done with the peanut gallery convention, I could use some help over here!”

The four pirate crewmates turned suddenly and realized their captain was now alone in trying to drag the large metal carcass aboard their ship.
Beatriz Abbott, captain of the Deathless Raven fleet, had known no life other than a pirate’s for the entirety of her memory. Despite being associated with the eccentric and manipulative Captain Avery of Skull Island and the exceptionally unfortunate Captain Boochbeard, Beatriz had made a name for herself doing good deeds for the inhabitants of the many worlds through which her adventures in the Spiral took her. From Cool Ranch to Aquila, leaders and peasants alike rejoiced at her name, recalling deeds of heroism and crimefighting, and even instances of taking those who wanted to join in on the adventures under her wing; such was the way that the infamously herring-craving Catbeard, former cutthroat rat captain Ratbeard, the watchful fox Bonnie Anne and the showy, if not egocentric, El Toro found their way to Abbott’s ship.

“Are you going to help me or not?” Beatriz shouted once more. The four hastily apologized all at once and scrambled to help their captain load an inoperative Armada marksman aboard the proud Marleybone galleon.

“Ye aren’t gonna do this every time we find some Armada thing on the beach, are ye?” Ratbeard asked warily.

“Like I said, I have been interested in how these machines work for a long time, and now that Gracie is along with us, she can help us figure out how they work. Who knows- we might even be able to reprogram it to do some of your chores around the ship, Ratbeard,” Beatriz smirked.

“Ha-har, well, I can’t disagree with someone else swabbin’ the decks fer once,” the rat chuckled. “Maybe this won’t be such a bad idea, after all.”

“Next you’ll be wantin’ it to eat your brussel sprouts for you, too,” scoffed Bonnie Anne. “Captain, I don’t know if this is such a good idea. How do you know it won’t just get up and attack us?”

“Even if it does, we’ll stop it, just like we always do. But I’m way too curious to let this opportunity to learn more about them pass me by.” The young captain propped the husk of their enemy against a crate and crouched down to stare at it. The empty black eyes of the mask made her shiver, its unchanging expression and tight lips making it appear authoritative and somewhat distressed; a haunting combination. Beatriz quickly looked away and removed the mask. It came off with a metallic snap, revealing only the black artificial head, which resembled a mannequin. The gears in its neck joints clicked uniformly as she tilted the limp head back and forth slowly.

“All right, captain, whatcha need?” Beatriz jumped and turned to see her engineer, Gracie Conrad, standing over her, signature red pipe wrench in hand and perpetual gung-ho grin on her face.

“Wah! Oh, uh, Gracie!” Beatriz stammered, snapping the mask back in place before standing up and saluting the young dog. “Here’s the trooper. He looks to be a marksman, though his weapon was long gone by the time we found him. Could you take him apart and find out how he works? We might even get some good out of him helping out around the ship, like those golems of yours.”

“I’ll see what I can do, captain!” The others simply watched, slack jawed, as she heaved the clockwork up over her shoulder and briskly walked back into the engineer’s room, deep within the ship, whistling energetically the whole way.

It wasn’t until the crew had caught batacuda for dinner, fried it up and polished off every last bit of it that Gracie burst into the mess hall, the oil and dirt from her labors making her look more like a labrador than a terrier.

“Captain! I think you ought to see this.”

The entire crew stood crowded around the clockwork, murmuring. Their captain, ironically the smallest of the ship’s inhabitants, squeezed between legs and tails and came to the front of the small crowd. There, clockwork parts lay strewn about everywhere. The metallic corpse had been turned over and its back compartment opened. The inner workings were impossibly complex to her untrained eye, with gears and cogs, small belts, rotors, bearings and tiny pipes, all in a tangle. She looked up at Gracie, who smiled back triumphantly. Beatriz only raised an eyebrow, gesturing to the parts.
Gracie started, remembering that her peers had not graduated from Marleybone’s finest mechanical studies school and mentored with the best mechanical engineers the dogs’ empire had to offer. “Oh! That’s right… Er, let me explain. You see,” she began, picking up a round copper part, “this right here is the only hardware that has absolute control over the entire system. It opens to reveal a panel with various switches and gear settings, with which I will need more time to tinker. However, the most fascinating thing is that, relative to the rest of the system, it does almost nothing!”

The crew groaned, realizing this might just be another lecture on how an insignificant part was actually very useful; a lecture that happened on a near-weekly basis and usually consisted of Gracie prattling on for the next hour or so about war golems, ship fuel systems or pocket watches before someone would stage a distraction and everyone would evacuate.

Ratbeard was about to ask Gracie if that was an extremely complicated-looking Valencian flying machine he just saw outside when she enthusiastically leapt forward and grabbed another part off the ground, taking everyone by surprise. “And this,” she said, holding up another very similar part, “is something more of an artificial intelligence mechanism, which has nearly all control over the system, much like the previous part. There are many of these throughout the body. You see, there are these tiny sensors that-”

“Will you just get on with it?!” roared Subodai from the back. “I grow weary of this talk of foreign parts! Mooshu’s weapons are far less complicated. Wrap gunpowder in paper and set it off- boom! Fireworks blast through walls and hulls like they are silk… none of this machinery nonsense.”

“The horse is right, what are you trying to get at?” Sarah Steel chirped.

Gracie scowled at her perfect moment of mechanical discovery and presentation being ruined by ruffians. “What it means,” she cut in through clenched teeth, “is that these clockworks rely mostly on what’s going on around them to determine what to do. It keeps them from running into walls, accidentally attacking each other, and probably allows them to recognize the voices of their commanders.”

Beatriz stood up and thought about this for a moment. “So if we can’t program it, could we… teach it to be something other than an Armada agent?”
Gracie’s eyes finally lit up again. “Yes! That is precisely what I plan on figuring out. If I mess with this first control, I might be able to get it to listen to us. This manual control can only do so much, however, since these troopers must rely mainly on their sensory input controls, but I want to see how far we can push this!”

“I have no idea what she just said, but I like it!” El Toro said, triumph in his every syllable.

“As long as she means we can make it sweep the floors for us, I’ll be happy,” grumbled Ratbeard.

The next few weeks in the skyways were spent with Beatriz pushing navigating duty off onto Sheriff Cogburn to go watch Gracie toil away on the clockwork. As she would repair the dents, scrapes and scuffs and tinker with the insides, Gracie explained the different parts to her captain, who looked on with boundless fascination. Sometimes, the clockwork would twitch and convulse as the engineer worked on different parts. A tweak of the manual control altered the sensory controls in ways imperceptible to the young captain, but apparently made all the difference to Gracie. Sometimes Beatriz would ask if Gracie was making good progress, to which she would usually respond with a positive grunt or a keen “yes ma’am!”

During the times that Beatriz grew bored of watching the clockwork’s progress, she would resume her duties at the helm. Bonnie Anne usually kept her company. The fox was one of her closest, most trusted companions from her earliest days on Skull Island, and the two knew they could talk about anything with one another.

“You oughta be careful, Captain,” Bonnie began one afternoon as the ship sailed through Skull Island. “You’re spendin’ an awful lot of time with that clockwork; almost more than Gracie, herself.”

Beatriz gave a confused glare, her gaze still fixed on the narrow path between flying fish schools. “How do you mean? It’s only a clockwork. We’ve defeated hundreds of them. Besides, this might not even work. The Armada’s technology is still such an enigma, even to Marleybone’s and Mooshu’s best authorities on combat.”

“But Gracie is one of the best, Captain. She could crack anything. And think if she does. Of course you’ll make it clean up after Ratbeard, but I know you. I know you’d get emotionally attached.”

Beatriz’s brow wrinkled again. “Nonsense.”

“It’s not always a bad trait, but I’m saying you oughta be careful. That thing could become more than just a thing to you, captain, an’ it’s still dangerous no matter what we do to it.”

The captain sighed. A frown was beginning to form on her forehead again as Bonnie could tell her captain was getting frustrated with the fox’s prodding.

“Would you like me to take over for a while?” Bonnie asked, a bit softer, as she stepped forward and Beatriz silently let her take the helm. Bonnie looked on as the girl walked back to the captain’s quarters, probably for a glass of yum and a chance to mull over her thoughts and what her first mate had said. She hoped her captain would listen.

Beatriz closed the door to the outside behind her. A squeaking came from behind the unorganized desk, and out jumped an armadillo, chubby from too many table scraps. She beamed at the sight of her faithful pet and kneeled down to pick him up.

“Good boy,” she chuckled, cradling the little animal and scratching under his fuzzy chin. The two made their way through the messy office and sat down at the desk. Beatriz took out a glass and a small dish, to which the armadillo made more enthusiastic chattering and chirping noises. Looking to the china cabinets nearby, she found a bottle of yum, still unopened, and poured some for herself and into the dish for her armadillo. She leaned back in her chair and rested her feet on the desktop, slowly swishing her drink around in her glass as she thoughtfully watched her small friend lap up the treat.

There in the repair room earlier that day, the clockwork looked strange without its hat and uniform. Without them, it was barely more than an odd mannequin. The entire body was coal black, and the major joints were revealed to be nothing more than metal ball joints. Even the mask had been set aside, and the thing looked nothing like the menace that it had used to be. Gracie flipped a tiny switch inside the locket-like device of the manual control and turned the clockwork to face her. She leaned over to the left and gave a loud, enthusiastic “hello!” The clockwork’s head turned toward the noise. She immediately went back to working on something else, but Beatriz was enthralled by that single response from the machine. She couldn’t wait for Gracie to be done.

This wasn’t attachment, this was simply fascination.

I’ll keep an eye on myself, Beatriz decided. I won’t let it come to attachment. There’s such a small chance that it could, anyhow; it’s too fascinating being able to see one of these things up close without having to destroy it that I don’t know how I could ever see it as more than an exciting experiment. We might change the Spiral with this.

“That clockwork is nothing like you, anyhow.” Beatriz looked down at her armadillo with a smile as he finished off the tasty yum and licked his lips, looking up to see if she had any more. “Bonnie’s just being paranoid. Let’s go find a sunny spot up on deck where you can get some fresh air and we can take our minds off this, hm?” The armadillo squeaked and rolled up in a ball, traveling in excited circles around his dish.

Beatriz could only play so many rounds of hide-and-seek with the armadillo, who liked to hide in the apple barrels every time, for so long. The clockwork came back into her mind and she found herself wandering down to the engineer’s room. With armadillo in hand, she slipped away, promising herself it would be the last time for the day.

The engineer’s room smelled of oil and ship fuel, and the ship’s gigantic boosting system lay silent for the moment. Her boots clanked on the metal grates on the floor, which kept equipment safe from damage if the ship were ever to run aground, and the electric lights swung lazily overhead as the ship turned to and fro. It probably felt just like home to an engineer.

“You’re just in time, captain!” Gracie shouted. She was putting the last bolts in place on the clockwork’s chest when Beatriz stepped into the dingy room. There, in the center, lay the clockwork, face-up as if about to make a snow angel. The armadillo growled and Beatriz put her hand on his head to assure him everything was all right. Gracie stood over the mechanism and put its uniform back in place, armor and all. She sat it up against the wall and snapped the mask back in place before fitting its wig and feathered hat.

“Now to see if it works,” Gracie murmured excitedly. “There’s a very good chance it won’t be hostile, but don’t worry- if it does happen to come after us, we should be fine.” She spun her pipe wrench around in the palm of her hand with a wink. “Captain, would you do the honors?” She handed a small brass key to her captain, picked up the clockwork by the upper arms as if it were passed out from a full night of Aquilan partying and gestured towards a small hole in the back of the neck behind the wig’s ponytail. “It’s a lot like a wind-up toy, actually. But once you start it up, it should be able to run on its own thanks to the mechanism that-”

“All right, Gracie, thank you,” Beatriz smiled, somewhat forcefully. She let her armadillo down, who immediately scurried off to hide on top of some barrels and growl from a safe distance, and she reached up and placed the key in its slot. This was it- she may finally be able to see an Armada member up-close without it trying to attack her.

She turned the key, and there was a noise like a music box about to play a tune. Gracie suddenly let go, and the clockwork nearly fell to the ground in a heap before it fully started up, and it stood up straight at attention. Beatriz and Gracie could only stare at the miracle of machinery before them.

The young captain walked slowly around the ticking, idling clockwork, whose head moved to keep the empty eyes following her. Standing face to face with it, Beatriz stared it down. It stayed harmlessly in place. Saluting the clockwork, although it felt strange, resulted in a reaction exactly the same. Each movement made a clicking noise, and it seemed to be pantomiming holding a sparquebus. She reached up and touched the hand that was holding the imaginary rifle. The clockwork looked down, apparently realizing it was holding nothing, and froze in place, ticking idly again.

“I think it’s confused,” Gracie laughed. She searched around and found a disused broomstick of about the same size as a rifle and put it in the marksman’s hands. The clockwork started moving again, putting the stick up against its shoulder as if it were ready for patrol.

“Does it speak?” Beatriz asked her engineer.

“Of course… I speak.” The two jumped at the clockwork’s characteristic stilted response. Gracie squealed with delight. “Tell us all that you know,” she said, leaning in closer.

“I… cannot fulfill that order… Sincerest apologies.”

“Amazing! It has nearly no recollection of anything!” Gracie looked like a puppy with a new bone.

Beatriz gave the clockwork a thoughtful stare. “So now we have to teach it like you said? Could we tell it anything we wanted and have it still believe us? Even if we said something like… the sky is green?”

Gracie laughed, still giddy at her accomplishment of refurbishing an Armada clockwork. “Oh I’m sure you could, and it would believe you, but once it stepped outside, it would probably be very puzzled to see a blue sky, instead.”

“Hmm.” Beatriz couldn’t decide what to teach the machine first. The broomstick caught her eye and she watched the clockwork pantomime checking the fuse and hammer on a real sparkgun.

“You are a member of my crew, and the rest of your shipmates aren’t a threat,” she began sternly. “You may not fire on them. They are your allies and friends.”

“Acknowledged,” came the stiff reply. “All shipmates… are allies… Not targets.”

“I will tell you when to attack an enemy. You may not attack or stray off unless I tell you to.”

Basic training went on for what felt like hours. The clockwork was taught to acknowledge his peers, instructed on battle orders and broadside combat duties and even shown how to salute his captain. Beatriz had to be exact, or the clockwork would somehow find a way to make loopholes or misinterpret the instruction. Gracie said it was just how programming worked, and Beatriz thought programming should be a bit more lenient to avoid so much exasperation. She quickly learned to set aside her frustration.

The ship’s crew gathered once more in the tiny engineer’s room, complaining of the smell and low ceilings as they awaited their captain’s much-anticipated announcement. Beatriz and Gracie stood before the group, quieting the other pirates. Finally, Beatriz spoke.

“Today, you meet your new crewmate,” she began. “You must treat him as you all treat each other… with the possible exception of Ratbeard and Bonnie.”

“Hey! She’s the one who always starts it!”

The captain cleared her throat deliberately and continued. “Now, I present to you your shipmate- our very own Armada clockwork.”

The clockwork marched forward from the shadows as the two had rehearsed and made a stiff bow before the crew. Oohs and Ahs rose up from the pirates as they leaned forward and gazed. Suddenly they approached the clockwork, eager to talk with it or experiment giving it orders. The marksman reacted with lightning speed and pointed his broomstick outwards defensively. His admirers stepped back with a small gasp and fell silent. Beatriz rushed forward and pointed the broomstick to the ground, the clockwork easing his stance as she did.

“And here is lesson number one for the rest of you.” She gave a harsh stare that pierced deeper into the crew than the clockwork’s gesture, and they all bowed their heads slightly. “While he has no memory of being an enemy to us, he was built for battle and will default to battle tactics if he feels it is necessary. Please do your best to not provoke him while Gracie and I break him of these habits. Now, if there are no further questions, you may all take your turnsapproaching him, introducing yourself and letting the pirate behind you have a chance to do the same.” Some of the pirates sighed over having to be orderly.

Last to introduce herself was Bonnie Anne. Unlike the others, who were fascinated by the clockwork and wanted to admire it and ask it questions, Bonnie gave a short, careful introduction and immediately turned away to resume her duties above deck.

As the sun set and the giant clouds turned orange and red and the air above deepened to a dark navy, Beatriz emerged for her evening shift at the helm. There, staring straight ahead with barely any acknowledgement to Beatriz’s presence stood Bonnie Anne.

“Bonnie,” she greeted, stepping forward to take the wheel. The fox didn’t budge. A few silent moments passed and Beatriz opened her mouth, but was cut off.

“So captain, when are you gonna tell ‘im where he comes from?”

The girl’s face twisted to the side in confusion. “Er, pardon?”

“When are you gonna tell that clockwork about where he comes from; what he was originally made to do?” Bonnie’s face gradated into a scornful expression and turned to watch her captain, brown eyes gleaming fiercely in the fading orange twilight. “And what’re you gonna do when you tell ‘im? I suppose you think he’ll just follow whatever order you give ‘im?”

“He’s just a clockwork- a machine. Why should a machine have to know all that?”

“She’s just a pirate on the run from her captors,” Bonnie growled. “Why should someone like a pirate have to know all about what happened to her parents?”

Beatriz stepped back, wide-eyed, before her face turned to anger, tears welling up in her eyes. “Why would you even think to say-”

“I’m only sayin’ what you refuse to say, Captain. What do you think’ll happen if we run into the Armada? What’ll that clockwork think when he sees his own kind fightin’ him? I don’t like that thing bein’ on board, even in a pile of scrap metal, and I don’t like the way you’re doting on somethin’ that won’t even recognize emotion, let alone return it, but it’s still self-aware an’ it deserves to know just what you’re doin’ to it- just like you deserve to know about your parents.” Bonnie was now leaning over her own captain, eyes narrowed angrily. “Things’ll get ugly fast if you start keepin’ secrets, especially from somethin’ like that clockwork. You can’t keep secrets like that away forever, an’ you aren’t doin’ it any favors thinkin’ protecting it’ll somehow make it return that dangerous attachment you have to it. It’ll turn on you faster than you can blink.”

“How dare you compare my situation to some machine’s nonexistent plight?” Beatriz snarled. “I’m a person in control of my own life. I have hopes and dreams. That clockwork is just machinery! It will follow whatever order I give it, and even if it did find out, it is still my clockwork. It can’t change that! It can’t rebel if I don’t want it to!”

Bonnie looked back towards the sky before sighing, deep and ragged. “I hope you know exactly what you’re doin’, captain. I really, truly hope you know.”

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